When Delegation Means Growth
21 May, 2021
Many first-time managers are struggling with delegating and letting things go. By doing so, they risk becoming bottlenecks of their scaling organizations. But more importantly, they are impeding the growth of their reports as they forget that delegation equals an opportunity for their team members to act more autonomously.
While delegating tasks is easy, delegating decisions takes much more effort. Delegating decisions is all about responsibility, trust, and accountability unlike delegating tasks which can be boiled down to technical competence.
When one is managing junior people, pursuing a command-and-control approach seems like the most reasonable approach. But that kind of approach will not help your reports grow. Without having an opportunity to make decisions, they will not be able to develop their full potential. Leaders who deliver instructions are not creating an environment for people on the team to be autonomous. They will always wait for someone else to assume responsibility and come up with a ready-made solution. On the other hand, a leader who is concerned with the growth of their reports will act more as a coach or a mentor guiding their team, having them make decisions, and letting them fail if needed. A servant leader will create opportunities that will be tailored to match the level of seniority and competencies of each individual.
Whenever there is a problem within a team, you should try not to act on it. Instead, you should encourage the person who raised that issue also to propose a solution. A seasoned leader would know to assess if a problem at hand is within the capacities of a person who raised it. I would ask them about the actions they would take to solve it, to start with. I would rather have them explore all other options before talking to me. Ideally, they would be able to find people on their team to help them before approaching me.
However, some managers would not understand their role in their reports’ growth. As engineers solving problems their whole life, they would be quick to come up with a solution rather than let the team sweat a bit longer over a problem. Acknowledging their own professional tendency to act as a problem-solver is the first responsibility of a good leader. When asking questions, managers should understand how far they want to go. I use Three Whys instead of Five Whys. For coaching someone on a practical problem, three Whys would be sufficient, and I would leave Five Whys for mentoring sessions where we would dissect deeper, underlying causes of a problem.
For starters, I would ask my reports to explain the problem. I would single out the most simple subproblem and have them try to solve it by themselves. Once I would be assured that they could solve it, I would delegate that subproblem to them. I would be very clear in my expectations and due date and ask them to come back with a proposal within 24 to 48 hours. I would ask for a short follow-up period because I want them to stay in the loop, be focused, and not allow the problem to get out of the horizon. Though many would fail in the first attempt, by introducing how this approach works, I would help them develop muscle memory for problem-solving.
When my team would become more independent and start to proactively address problems, I would have to teach them how to keep me informed. This is critically important because as people become more confident and more capable of solving problems on their own, they will deal with them without reporting them to anyone. An inevitable consequence of that is the lack of visibility of what would be happening on the team. Mutual trust should grow with time -- a manager should trust their report and their ability to solve the problem, and a report should trust a manager who should delegate the work matching their competencies.
In my experience, there are five levels of delegation:
- Junior person -- will need to talk first with a manager and will rely on their help to solve the problem.
- More experienced junior -- will discuss potential solutions with a manager, and with their help, will pick the right solution.
- More experienced engineer -- will come up with several solutions by themselves but will rely on a manager’s help to choose the right one.
- Quite experienced engineer -- will identify the right solution and consult a manager on actions they plan to take.
- Senior engineer -- knows how to solve the problem and will reach out to a manager only to inform them of their actions.
- If your team needs you at all times, you are not doing a good job. If you can’t go on vacation or take some time off, you have failed to build an autonomous and competent team.
- While it may sound like a cliche, some people avoid delegating decisions because deciding on everything makes them feel important. However, if you want to scale an organization, you need to become non-important. The more you are not needed, the more you will be able to focus on strategic things.
- Managers need to change their mindset from being problem-solvers to being coaches. As engineers, we are trained to be problem spotters and problem solvers our entire life. To delegate, you need to act as a coach. But, don’t conflate coaching with mentorship. As a martial arts teacher, I learned the difference in another, non-tech field. Delegation is, to put it simply, telling people “I need you to solve this”, or “I am expecting you to do that”.
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